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The Australian, 27 February 2001

Aboriginal children are still being removed, and for good reasons

By Peter Howson

The admission by former ATSIC chairperson, Lowitja O’Donoghue, that she was not after all "stolen" from her parents adds considerable support for those who have been arguing that there is no case for an apology to such children. Given that she was actually put in a home by her father, there is no substance to her reaction that whether she was stolen or removed is only playing with words. The stealing thesis has been used to accuse governments of action involving the wrongful forcible separation of Aboriginal children from parents.

The O’Donoghue admission also opens up the question of why, today, so many more indigenous than non-indigenous children are legally required to be separated from their parents.

Last year’s test case dismissing compensation claims for maltreatment by two part-Aborigines (Messrs Cubillo and Gunner) established that the Commonwealth did not have any policy of forcible separation in the Northern Territory. It is true, by contrast, that State Governments have long been operating such policies. Unsurprisingly, Sir Ronald Wilson has been quoting their submissions to his 1995-97 inquiry as support for the extraordinary conclusion in his Bringing Them Home report that around one third of Aboriginal children were removed from parents in a manner that constituted racial discrimination and genocide.

However, developments since the Wilson report confirm that his conclusion cannot be substantiated. For one thing, research has revealed that earlier removals from their parents of Aboriginal children in the States were subject to legal procedures to ensure that the children needed protection. In New South Wales, for example, removals required an inquiry to establish it was in "the interest of the moral or physical welfare" of the child - and was appealable to a court by parents. Surely Wilson should have taken into account that these legal procedures established that the removals were due to neglect, even abuse?

Naturally, non-indigenous children also then had similar provisions protecting them (and parents) against indiscriminate forcible removal under Child Welfare legislation. While that system has been modified, it basically continues today.

Thus, at the end of 1998-99 almost 18,000 Australian children were under care and protection orders issued by courts (with most removed from parents and subject to the guardianship/ custody of government departments). The majority of such children (over 14,000) were non-indigenous. However, a significantly higher proportion of orders applied to indigenous children, with NSW having the highest rate involving eight times as many of its indigenous children.

Sadly, both today and yesterday these removals derive from situations of serious child abuse or neglect, including actual or potential harm. The basic need for removals reflects the incapacity of a small group of parents, from whatever racial origin, to manage their children — and quite often their own relationship too. Given that forcible separations type policies have applied to both indigenous and non-indigenous children, and have included protective provisions, one can only wonder how Wilson concluded that State policies have involved discrimination against Aboriginal children.

Moreover, as the NT case clearly demonstrates, any such thesis would need rigorous checking, preferably in a court environment. In that case claims of forcible separation were not established notwithstanding extensive assistance to claimants from counsel subsidized by the Commonwealth. One NSW claim of having been stolen, made by a part-Aborigine, has also been decisively dismissed by the State’s Full Court, again demonstrating serious problems with unsubstantiated claims.

Yet, with the failure of any proper case to establish that unwarranted forcible separations have occurred, Wilson now proposes a tribunal where evidence would be subject to less searching tests. But would the discovery of the first "stolen" child by such a tribunal really be convincing? In reality it would risk being a repeat exercise of Wilson’s own failure to make adequate checks of the veracity of stories told to his inquiry by Aborigines.

The underlying causes of higher rates of forcible removals of indigenous children are complex but have nothing to do with discrimination against indigenes. Cultural differences are important, with Aboriginal mothers often finding that mixed-race progeny have not been accepted by traditional Aboriginal communities.

But a major cause is also the endemic violence that has emerged within such communities, with severe adverse effects on women and children. In traditional communities elders have lost much of their former authority and alcoholism and violence are often rampant. The life-styles are simply not conducive to parental care for many children.

Official reports now available indicate that previous governments’ policies involving the granting of communal land rights have turned many traditional communities into cultural prisons, where gainful employment opportunities are limited and attempts to pursue the old lifestyle of hunter-gatherer largely futile.

The important thing now is to provide conditions conducive to improving the present life-styles of such Aborigines. The challenge for governments and Aboriginal leaders is not the futile playing with words about apologies, let alone treaties and such like, but decisive action to deal with real problems that inflict serious harm on many Aboriginal children.

Peter Howson was Aboriginal Affairs minister in 1971-72